KEARNS — Heather Richardson's toughtest competition didn't just taunt her from the start line of every race.
She waged a war against her most threatening foe every minute of every day as she attemped to achieve the most important goal she'd set this season — win the World Sprint Championship.
It turned out that in order to beat the world's fastest skaters, the 23-year-old who lives and trains in Utah would have to win a battle with her own mind first.
"Yesterday I was so tense, you could tell I was shaking at the line," said Richardson. "I just really wanted to be relaxed."
She said she simply tried to "have fun" as she pursued a title no U.S. woman has won since Jennifer Rodriguez did it in 2005.
"I tried my best because as much as I wanted to win, I didn't want to have that pressure," said Richardson after winning the World Sprint Championship with a gold medal finish in the 1000-meter race Sunday at the Utah Olympic Oval. "I actually took all the stress and said, 'I don't care if I win; I just want to go out and skate and have fun.’ ”
She started the day by skating the 500-meter race in 37.24 seconds, which was good enough for fourth-place. It was the only time the North Carolina native missed the podium at this weekend's races. About two hours later, she skated the 1000 meters in 1:13.19, which earned her a gold medal in her favorite distance.
"It's so exciting," she said grinning. "I'm so happy my mom and aunt were here. I'm just really excited I was able to pull it off for everyone."
Richardson's 148.015 points set a new world record. Her accomplishment is so significant, it's difficult to put into words — even for her coach.
"Try living in the world of 1,000th of a second," said U.S. long track head coach Ryan Shimabukuro, who joked that he could finally exhale after Richardson's victory lap. "How do you quantify that? You can't. That's why I am so proud of these guys. They just stayed mentally strong and focused on what their goals are."
The coach said the mental piece is much more difficult to manage because the World Sprint Championship is based on how well an athlete performs over four races in two days.
"It was one of her biggest tests mentally," he said. "Being put in the position of being the favorite and handling that kind of pressure. The difference between a World Sprint Championship and a World Cup or the world singles, those are one-shot deals. This is, you've got to put four good races together. Maybe you can have one off, but her off yesterday was still good enough to put her on the podium. So that's the kind and level of athlete she's become. We've just got to keep pushing both sides, the mental and the physical."
Even her teammates said they couldn't imagine the pressure Richardson was under being the favorite on her home track.
"She had so much pressure on her this weekend," said Brittany Bowe, who finished eighth overall after being cut off by another athlete in the 1000-meters and losing about a half second. "Maybe her nerves did get to her a little bit yesterday. Hard to say what she felt, being in her shoes, with the media, the fans, everything she was expected to do. But she came back today and did unbelievable and put down some great times. It was just a heck of a performance."
Shimabukuro and Richardson watched video of her two third-place finishes Saturday night. He said he knew she could improve significantly in Sunday's final two races.
"The last two years, in the world championships, the first day has been kind of rocky," said Shimabukuro. "She might have had one good race and one shaky race, but the second day she came out swinging. So I knew she could have a much better day today."
Richardson edged defending sprint champion Jing Yu, China, who was fourth in the 1000-meters and earned 148.280 points. Korea's Sang-Hwa Lee won the 500 meter race and set a new track record with a time of 36.99. She was third in the overall with 148.560 points.
On the men's side, Michel Mulder, the Netherlands, won the overall sprint title with 136.790, which is also a world record. Pekka Koskela, Finland, was second, while Mulder's teammate, Hein Otterspeer, was third.
"It was mentally really hard," said an emotional Mulder. "It's one of the hardest competitions mentally, and I made it through. It it was giving me some headaches yesterday, but I was really happy I made it in the end."1 comment on this story
U.S. skater Mitchell Whitmorre was 12th in the overall points with 138.135.
Otterspeer won the 1000-meters with a time of 1:07.97, while Joji Kato won the 500 for the second straight day with a time of 34.29.
Richardson said she was still trying to process her win.
"This is so exciting," she said smiling. "I'm glad I was able to hold onto it. (Coach) knew today wasn't going to be easy for me. He said I had to stay tough, and I think I did that well."